Be Sure You Like It Before You Put A Ring On It: How A Canceled Engagement Could Cost You More Than Heartbreak
"Cause if you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it." Beyonce's hit song Single Ladies was all over the radio and television in 2008. While the hook got caught in most everyone's head at some point, it actually was pretty good advice. It seems like a significant number of people out there don't take their significant others seriously enough and either run from idea of marriage or do it for the wrong reasons. Getting engaged and getting married is serious business. It takes commitment, hard work, and dedication to one another. Carrie Scanlon touched on these issues in her recent blog about advice she would give her younger self.
Unfortunately for one Georgia couple who has recently been in the news, a canceled engagement turned into litigation and a $50,000.00 award against the man who called it off. ABC News and Good Morning America recently reported a story out of Georgia where an appeals court has upheld the decision of a trial court to award a jilted fiancé $43,500.00 in damages and $6,500.00 in attorney's fees after she filed a lawsuit alleging a breach of contract to marry and fraud. It was reported that the couple had been together for nearly four years before the man presented his girlfriend with a $10,000.00 ring which she eagerly accepted. The two already lived together and had a child. Over the course of a seven year engagement (seven years probably should have been a tip off that something wasn't right) the marriage never occurred and the man asked his fiancée and child to move out after he was confronted in April of 2011 with relationship he had with another woman. Of course, testimony revealed that the dumped woman "possibly" had another relationship at some point during the engagement too.
Part of the man's defense to the case was that he says he never actually asked the jilted ex to marry him. Georgia, much like many other states, no longer recognizes common law marriage. Common law marriage was a doctrine that provided marriage like property and asset protections when two individuals lived together and essentially acted as though they were married even though they were not. Because there was no common law marriage, the woman in the Georgia case apparently had little recourse even though she had quit her job, sold her home, and stayed home for years to raise the couple's child. She was surely headed for some difficult circumstances and filed the breach of contract to marry case. Many states still recognize a cause of action for these types of heart balm actions. Of course, this type of situation can go both ways. In May of 2012 the Today Show reported on a similar case in New York filed by a man after his fiancée called off their upcoming wedding. The man there sought to recover wedding costs and substantial unpaid living expenses.
Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have abolished the traditional breach of promise to marry law suit. West Virginia abolished stand-alone breach of promise to marry and alienation of affection cases by statute in 1969. Ohio did so in 1978 and Pennsylvania in 1990. With that, you can't just sue someone because they promised to marry you and then called it off. No matter how embarrassed or upset you might be, you can't sue for that alone. The West Virginia Supreme Court, like other states, has made clear that a called off engagement could result in valid law suits if specific money or property or circumstances demonstrate actual damages. Bryan v. Lincoln, 168 W.Va. 556 (1981). In the Bryan case a man actually gave his fiancé $5,000.00 to help her buy a property interest from her ex-husband. In the end, the lady called off the engagement and actually remarried her ex. The lady's lawyers argued that the 1969 law made clear that the man had no case. Our Supreme Court recognized, however, "that the predominate view [throughout the U.S. is that such laws] go no further than to bar actions for damages suffered from loss of marriage, humiliation, and other direct consequences of the breach, and do not affect the rights of the parties relative to gifts passing between them." It was also suggested that causes of action for fraud and unjust enrichment were also valid.
In a time when many people live together before marriage, houses are sold, jobs change and people begin to change their lives before they actually get married. When those changes are made specifically because of an engagement or a promise to marry many states would likely permit a law suit to obtain specific monetary damages when the engagement is called off.
Perhaps the underlying problem to all of this is the fact that some people just don't take getting married seriously enough. There are plenty of people who get married for the right reasons and have many happy years, but just can't seem to make it work for some reason or another. But in the world of the Kim Kardashians and 72-day marriages, it seems that just as many people don't marry for the right reasons. There is a lot of discussion and criticism these days about who should be able to marry whom when it appears that most people's attention should be better focused on who they should specifically marry. Family is one of the bedrocks of our society and of the Bordas & Bordas, PLLC firm. When we have strong families, more people do the right thing. When we have strong families we have a strong society. Strong families can come in many different forms, but when a marriage starts strong, and for the right reasons, it is much easier keep our lives on track.
- Article about the Georgia case referenced above - Today Show: Man Sues Ex-Fiance After she Breaks off Engagement
- Today Show video and separate article about the NY case referenced above.
- Article about short celebrity marriages
- Article from Today Show - 7 Secrets to a Long and Happy Marriage